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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    David Foster Wallace’s legacy lives in spite of his death

    Yesterday marked the second anniversary of UA alumnus David Foster Wallace’s suicide. After getting his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and English at Amherst College, Wallace earned his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the UA in 1987.

    I discovered Wallace’s work much later than did most of my classmates and have read only a few of his nonfiction articles. While they were struggling to develop a personal, compelling voice through their English and creative writing classes and workshops, I was grappling with the weightier topics my philosophy professors at Oberlin College laid upon my classmates and me. I was going to be a responsible, informed citizen by knowing where I stood on the important issues of the day. Or, at best, I hoped to be able to convince people that they were wrong about (almost) everything.

    Then the 2004 election rolled around, and my home state senator’s name, John McCain, dominated the news websites. McCain was batted around as a possible vice presidential candidate for Democratic Sen. John Kerry. One online pundit, whose name I forget, linked to Wallace’s famous account for Rolling Stone magazine of McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. Having been born and raised in Phoenix, constantly hearing McCain’s history as a Vietnam prisoner of war during every election cycle made him look like an old, respectable politician with military cred. Talk of McCain’s status as a “”maverick”” politician was no more than just talk to me. So I was expecting more of the same going into Wallace’s article.

    I was astonished. Wallace not only convincingly presented McCain as a war hero worthy of our respect, whose straightforward style and personal moral compass often led him to be at odds with the GOP — how tragic the change, how far his fall looks now — but he was writing in the same style of how I think, write and occasionally speak.

    At the time, I had been fighting with the concept of how a person can convey the fullness of this world we inhabit and experience to another person so that there is minimal to no misunderstanding. I concluded that it’s nigh impossible to fully communicate with each other without a machine out of science fiction that forms direct brain-to-brain connections. Wallace’s writing came close to my ideal communiqué. A topic leads to a tangent on a topic that merits its own tangents. While this sounds like a postmodern literary exercise in testing a reader’s patience, what Wallace seemed to aim for in his nonfiction writing is what I strive to do as a human being: to push back the edge of ignorance with humility, humor, warmth and a generous intelligence.

    The following year, a week before my own commencement was to take place, my best friend directed me to the speech Wallace gave to Kenyon College’s graduating class. My friends and I were worried about leaving the “”bubbles”” in our lives, whether it was Oberlin or our own heads, and heading out into the “”real”” world. Twenty years separated Wallace and us:

    “”Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.””

    After reading this, my best friend and I felt a little more optimistic about the future. But that didn’t stop us from realizing this idea through dreary experience again and again in the coming years. Wallace offered me the same strong, bracing perspective on what it means to be a responsible adult as he did to that Kenyon College class and anyone familiar with his work.

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